Outside Guests: Doug Aitken’s migration (empire)

I recently spent five weeks travelling in the US and UK for work. If you showed me a picture of a street I regularly visited—in Pasadena, or London, or Newcastle—I imagine I could identify it. If you asked me to identify the room I stayed in, well, that would be trickier. The hotel room is a strange creation of the modern era: home and not home. A space that we’re supposed to enter as if it were ours alone, though a moment’s reflection and investigation will bring to mind the hundreds or thousands who have slept there before us. We expect to feel relaxed and comfortable, but not so comfortable that we decide to remove a picture from the wall or fill the shelves and closets with our own things. The art, décor, and room layout tend to be easily forgettable. If we remember them too well, it probably means there was a problem—the walls were too thin, the water pressure too weak, that flowery spray covered up something rank. Our neighbours are constantly changing; no one stays too long. And if we (or those neighbours) stay too long, it’s usually a sign that something’s not quite right.

For all their efforts to create hominess, hotels are more often migratory spaces: they require and enable human movement. We stay there in order to get somewhere else. To enjoy a holiday, to visit family, or to rest as we move from one city to another. Or perhaps they give us a place that stands for home until we can find or afford a place that will become home.

American hotel rooms are the settings for Doug Aitken’s remarkable 2008 video installation migration (empire). But the viewers’ focus is squarely on the unexpected hotel guests. I first encountered this work a year or so ago at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This year I was able to give it repeated looks at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha and, in a different configuration, at the Aitken retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Aitken’s video opens with the sound of wind and a view of a white sky that descends to a vista of old houses in autumn or early winter. A lonely piano melody accompanies a mix of industrial landscapes and abandoned-looking rooms, suggesting that this is some kind of reflection on the movement of work and manufacturing and the end of the American industrial empire.

But Aitken is interested in other kingdoms and migrations as well. Having set a rather bleak tone with this depopulated American landscape, he presents a series of twelve apparently abandoned hotel rooms, each one visited by a different bird or mammal. In the first location—a vacant motel whose windblown palm trees and slide guitar setting suggest the American west—a beautiful dark brown horse paces nervously in a small room, making dust rise from the worn carpet. He seems to watch a small black and white television, bolted to the wall, on which a herd of wild horses run across an open field, before turning his head to the camera. A change of musical score and a camera zoom down a more contemporary hotel hallway signal a change of setting, and two delicate white peacocks appear upon a red bed cover. Their movements seem to mirror each other: when one shifts its head slightly, the other does the same. But before we become too engrossed in their presence, the scene shifts yet again: new hotel, new occupant. This time a raccoon takes a drink from a shiny silver bathroom tap, then stares curiously at a generic hotel lamp, a nocturnal creature seemingly fascinated by this unnatural light.

Nine other creatures in nine other hotel rooms follow, though you’d be forgiven if you thought the sequence was all shot in only two or three spaces. Most viewers will be absorbed by the visual beauty of these well-known birds and mammals: the delicacy of the peacocks’ crests; the prehistoric sublimity of the beaver’s tale; the thin line of skin along the hawk’s mouth. Or we find ourselves focused on their varied responses to their familiar (to us), unfamiliar (to them) environments. One can’t help but feel sorry for the solitary bison, who scratches his tremendous head and horns against the corner of a bed, then stares through a window at the light glowing outside. Other animals seem better able to adapt to their new surroundings.  The beaver takes a dip in a porcelain bathtub then washes his face under the running water. The mountain lion’s fearful symmetry is softened by its evident pleasure in tossing about the pillows and tearing up the bed cover.


Aitken pulls the vignettes together via repeated motifs: a static television screen; a white telephone; the glare of light through gauzy curtains. A keyboard riff introduced with the deer recurs with the mountain lion; the fall of puzzle pieces around the fox will reappear transformed in the final sequence.

There is enough care behind these repetitions to encourage a search for some kind of narrative: perhaps we are witnessing a post-apocalyptic, post-human scene where the earth’s other creatures reclaim what was once theirs. But I find it more satisfying as a meditation on migration: a reminder that North Americans now live and camp and holiday in lands once crossed by bison or caribou, where hawks and foxes once hunted, where beavers and hares once built homes. Like a nineteenth-century European artist explorer, Aitken offers us a portfolio of iconic American creatures, though his method makes us see them anew. Some, like the bison and mountain lion, suggest the lost freedom of a bygone era; others, like the raccoon and hare, have adapted to urban life. Still others, like the beaver, are endangered, but play a key role in North American biodiversity. Bringing them indoors startles some of them, and some of us. It also makes us aware of the complexity of our shared moment.

Aitkens closes his work with perhaps its most powerful sequence. It’s evening now; the familiarly garish lights of the hotel sign glow outside. Inside, a horned owl sits upon a bed, staring back at us, while the telephone’s message light blinks red. Is there a message waiting to be heard? From whom? The owl’s beak opens but makes no sound; its claws clutch the old bedding. As a ghostly soundtrack of strings and human voices rises, feathers begin to fall, surround, almost cover the owl, who barely moves. These are surely the stuffing of hotel pillows, and suddenly we think of the thousands of birds sacrificed for our nightly comfort. The owl might well have hunted some of these same birds, but its purposes and methods for doing so are so distant from our own, that a great gulf rises between us. The owl looks on in dignified puzzlement, then flies off, kicking up the feathers, which rise and rise as the screen turns to the same white that opened the work, and the ghostly chorus fades to the same sound of wind that opened the work. And then the work begins again.


I watched migration (empire) in two very different configurations. In Omaha, the work was exhibited in a small, enclosed space, on a single wall, with two benches for sitting. The rest of the museum was quiet, and there were only a few other viewers with me. This made for an intimate if conventional experience. At MOCA, migration has a large room almost to itself, though sound from other installations bleeds through the walls. The images appear simultaneously on three large, raised screens. These screens reminded me of the drive-in movies my family used to attend in Omaha in the 1970s—not a bad association for a work that seems so interested in the American meeting of nature and modernity, of the wild outside and the mundane inside. There are no seats for viewers, so one must choose to stand, sit, or wander. Most chose to sit or stretch out on the carpet. In both settlings, I found the work engrossing.

There was a particular and unexpected poignancy for me in seeing this work in Omaha and Los Angeles, two places where I once lived. Had my life taken other turns, I might have watched Aitken’s work and then returned to my home or my office. Instead, I walked to a rental car and returned to the comfort and strangeness of yet another hotel room.

Images: Doug Aitken, migration (empire) (still), 2008, video installation with three channels of video (color, sound), three projections, three steel and PVC screen billboard sculptures, 24:28 minutes/loop, installation dimensions variable. Published with permission from MOCA.


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